What Phil Kessel and the Leafs need up front

If you have yet to read Kent Wilson’s excellent “Content over style” post from last week over at Flames Nation, go and do so. Kent explains the vital importance of avoiding stylistic traps when evaluating a hockey player, instead focusing on the big picture: does the player do things that helps the team win games?

One area I think where the focus on player qualities over player outcomes can muddle things is in team building, specifically when it comes to player categorization, ie; “roles” on a club. For example, NHL teams primarily employ bigger, tougher players in their bottom six forward rotation, especially when it comes to the the 4th unit. This is often an area where folks stop asking pertinent questions (can this guy outplay his opponents? Does he drive goal differential?) are instead start focusing on particular qualities (is he big? Is he mean? Can he fight?). This is how a person decides, for instance, to buy out Nigel Dawes after a 15-goal season only to to sign Raitis Ivanans.

We know that Brian Burke wants to add size to his top six, but what he really needs to do is add a guy who can drive play. Phil Kessel needs a guy next to him who can do that, and here’s why:

Kessel is a skilled scoring winger who has more goals (99) over the last three seasons than all but nine players: Steven Stamkos (156) Alex Ovechkin (120) Corey Perry (114) Patrick Marleau (111) Ilya Kovalchuk (109) Jarome Iginla (107) Marian Gaborik (105) Bobby Ryan (100) and Daniel Sedin (100).

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Does this matter? Indubitably, yes. But goal-scoring is only one attribute of a hockey player, and it’s particularly empty if you consider that the Leafs may be giving up as many goals at the other end of the ice that Kessel helps the get on offence.

In the three years that Kessel has been a Leaf, the team has gone from 8th (51.6%) to 26th (46.4%) to 28th (46.7%) in Fenwick Close, and shot-differential rate that indicates team quality and can predict the teams’ success.

The team has fallen every year under Kessel and they had a very promising 2009 and 2010. The problem is that management made the wrong moves, eliminating the promising Viktor Stalberg and surprisingly effective low minutes players Jamie Lundmark, John Mitchell and Garnet Exelby. Lee Stempniak as well was a surprising talent with a Corsi per 60 of 12.8 in 2010 and hasn’t wavered too much, putting up a 4.62 in 2012 with Calgary.

In 2011, Burke got rid of two play drivers, François Beauchemin and Tomas Kaberle. Mike Komisarek got bad, and the trade for Dion Phaneuf couldn’t mitigate all these losses. While skilled, the Toronto Maple Leafs now only had a few players who could really drive play. At the end of the 2010 season, 9 of 13 Leafs with 50 games played were plus Corsi players. After 2011, that number had slipped to just 3 of 14.

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So where does this put Kessel? He isn’t exactly synonymous with the 2010-2011 in Team Corsi, but here’s how he’s looked in his NHL career:

  Corsi Rel Corsi ON QoC Ozone
2008 6.4 7.0 0.581 46.8%
2009 6.9 7.2 0.438 50.6%
2010 4.9 9.4 -0.035 52.4%
2011 -2.2 -6.6 0.280 51.3%
2012 3.2 -0.3 0.337 54.3%

(via Behind The Net)

Kessel’s best years for puck movement were obviously his two seasons in Boston when he saw a lot of minutes with Marc Savard as his centre and Zdeno Chara behind him. Without those guys in the lineup, Kessel’s finding it more difficult to move the puck forward.

However his Rel Corsi number in 2012 is actually somewhat promising. He was very nearly a plus player overall and may have finished in the black had the team not gone into their tail-spin at the end of the season.

Obviously, there’s potential here, but Leafs forwards who saw more time with Kessel tended to have worse zone-adjusted Corsi rates with Kessel as opposed to without him. Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul are the two major exceptions:

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  With Kessel Without Kessel
Bozak 0.483 0.384
Lupul 0.484 0.396
Connolly 0.438 0.483
MacArthur 0.475 0.516
Lombardi 0.473 0.456
Grabovski 0.619 0.530
Frattin 0.485 0.487
Steckel 0.580 0.482
Combined 0.485 0.492

Kessel at this point isn’t defensively responsible enough so that we can be sure that his explosive goal total at one end of the ice doesn’t totally mirror the number of goals that he gives up at the other end.

He is a skilled player that has a lot of good things going for him. Unfortunately, play-driving isn’t one of them and this year, the team having so few valid defensive options hurt them. Clearly, him and Tyler Bozak just aren’t getting it done.

Option A for the Leafs is to pair Kessel with Grabovski at centre, which stacks one line, but it’s a pretty good line with an elite goal-scorer and an elite play-driver working together. You could put Nik Kulemin on the opposite wing in hopes he regains his scoring touch.

Option B is Dave Steckel. He isn’t flashy at all and would probably cost Kessel a few goals, but he’s defensively responsible enough to keep the Leafs top line in the black.

Option C is the one I like, which is selling Joffrey Lupul’s stock at a high and bringing back a quality NHL player. There are some teams that could use a scoring winger, but the Leafs need puck movers, not goal scorers. Pilfering resources from Florida is an old favourite of Canucks GM Mike Gillis, and Mike Santorelli or Marcel Goc could be attractive options. Colorado’s Matt Duchene is also a popular choice, but I’m not sure if the Avalanche would be interested in the few trade pieces the Leafs have to give up.

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There’s something here. Kessel likes to score a lot off the rush so naturally, there will be opportunities against his line. However, he needs to play with a guy who can end opposition possessions early and maximize the number of times he comes out of the zone with the puck every shift. Visually, his line did get hemmed in the zone an awful lot, but with the right guy on his line, those minus shifts can be limited.

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  • Yeah, I’d say the Leafs have to do at least one of two things, if not both:

    1.) Get Kessel some stronger linematers. Lupul and Bozak have always been mediocre at best possession options.

    2.) Get him some shelter. I suppose they kind of do this already seeing as Grabs usually sees the top lines, but tilting the ice a bit more for Kessel is in order. Especially if they insist on playing w=him with guys like Bozak.

  • As far as I am concerned, trading Lupul is a huge mistake. Over past 2 seasons in 5v5 zone start adjusted situations:

    Kessel’s GF20 with Lupul: 1.281
    Kessel’s GF20 without Lupul: 0.641

    Kessel’s GF% with Lupul: 51.2%
    Kessel’s GF% without Lupul: 39.8%

    Yes, I know, it isn’t corsi and everybody loves corsi these days, but I’ll take more goals over more corsi any day. Lupul has shown year after year that he drives goal scoring and that is good enough for me.

    The best thing to do, IMO, is to get Kessel and Lupul a 2-way center with a defensive presence far stronger than Bozak’s. Let Kessel and Lupul create the offense and let the center take a more defensive minded approach. Not sure there is anyone on the team that fits the bill, or even in the free agent market (maybe Jarret Stoll), so a trade would be necessary but I don’t think you need to acquire a star offensive player so the cost shouldn’t be too high.

      • Danny Gray

        “that’s not so much with lupul and without lupul as it is with AHL linemates and without AHL linemates.”

        I love this response, and while somewhat true, not completely. Here are the other wingers that Kessel has played with the past 2 seasons and their GF20 with and without Kessel.

        MacArthur with Kessel: 0.795 without: 0.991
        Crabb with Kessel: 0.700 without: 0.691
        Versteeg with Kessel: 0.319 without: 0.845

        MacArthur and Versteeg saw their on-ice goal production drop with Kessel while Crabb’s was almost the same. Now let’s look at how Lupul performed with his Flyers teammates a few years back.

        2007-08 M. Richards with Lupul: 1.329 without: 0.780
        2007-08 Briere with Lupul: 0.734 without: 0.653
        2007-08 Umberger with Lupul: 1.261 without: 0.756
        2008-09 J. Carter with Lupul: 1.281 without: 0.950
        2008-09 Hartnell with Lupul: 1.272 without: 0.976

        Made them all better too which is pretty convincing evidence to me that Lupul is doing something right. Please, can we end the lets trade Lupul talk and change it to lets sign Lupul to a contract extension talk?

        • Top shelf

          Hopefully Lupul wants to stay under Carlyle, I’d be happy to sign him for 3-4 more years, the worry of course is he wants a huge payout or something very long term. Burke should have a clear idea what Lupul is looking for well before the deadline and move him only if negotiations are very far apart.

          Lupul does lot’s of things well, he has the skills to play on the rush with Kessel, passes well and can finish too. He also is fairly good at working the boards and hemming in the opposition, a skill that to an extent isn’t fully realized playing with Kessel and Bozak as they don’t help much in this area.

          Interesting that you mentioned Umberger playing with Lupul. He has a reasonable contract, usually solid numbers (though he had a bad year this season past) and good size. Seems like he would be a big step up over Bozak. Any input on his defensive prowess would be appreciated. (Can’t say I’ve seen him play very often, my impressiion is that he’s fairly average defensively, which might not be good enough.

  • I don’t agree that trading Stalberg was a bad idea. The player we got in return, Kris Versteeg, is significantly better. The mistake was trading Versteeg for a bag of magic beans.

    It’s also worth noting that in 2009/10 when the Leafs were a highly effective puck possession team, they had a number of solid Corsi players who they proceeded to trade: Matt Stajan, Nik Hagman, Ian White, Alexei Ponikarovsky, and Jason Blake. None of those guys scored as many points as, say, Joffrey Lupul, but they were a lot more defensively responsible.